As published in The Windham Eagle…
On Sunday, June 2, 2019, The Windham Eagle Reporter and Registered Maine Guide, Craig Bailey, his sons Ian, Aaron, Ethan and Evan, and longtime friend, Patrick Bogan, left Raymond on the 6-hour drive north, to begin the ultimate Maine-based adventure, on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (AWW).
The destination was Pelletier’s Campground, in St. Francis, near the Canadian border, to meet its proprietor, Norm L’Italien. In addition to serving as an outstanding host, L’Italien provides the shuttle service to transport adventurers to the various starting points (put-ins) along the AWW. L’Italien’s down-to-earth, jovial personality and Canadian-French accent, epitomizes the northern Mainer.
After transferring gear and provisions to L’Italien’s passenger van, on Monday, the group was shuttled 85 miles over rough, dirt, logging roads to the put-in, at the north end of Umsaskis Lake. L’Italien made the 3-hour journey enjoyable with tales of adventurers escorted and the related mishaps he’s dealt with. All the while, the group was hoping their journey would not become fodder for one of his stories.
Along the way a bear was spotted foraging in the woods. L’Italien shared advice on dealing with bears encountered along the waterway, explaining they seem to respond better to commands in French, vs. English. Since the group didn’t speak much French, L’Italien offered the universal command one can shout to move bears along: “GIT!”
Once the van was unloaded and L’Italien drove away, a surreal mood ensued, as the group acknowledged they were now completely on their own, off the grid, left only with gear, provisions and their adventurous spirit, fully immersed in nature.
The sun was shining and a few flies were buzzing about, enough to warrant the first application of sunblock and insect repellent.
After loading the canoes and enjoying a wholesome lunch on the shore of Umsaskis Lake, the group launched their canoes and began paddling towards the Long Lake Dam campsite, approximately 8 miles away.
The map indicated nothing but smooth water ahead. Campsites were clearly marked along the river, serving as primary landmarks to track progress against the map. After a few hours of paddling the sound of rushing water could be heard, at which time the group realized they had arrived at the targeted campsite: Long Lake Dam.
At this point, the dam is a remnant of what it was during the logging industry’s primitive past, requiring the group to portage (unload canoes and carry gear) around the obstacle.
Once camp was setup and firewood gathered, Evan commenced to fishing. He had a good-sized trout on the line, but upon lifting it out of the water it fell back into the river. After this excitement, others began fishing. Ian caught two small trout, but no keepers.
Dinner consisted of teriyaki steak tips, potatoes and onions cooked over an open fire. After much conversation, reflecting on how long the group had been planning for the trip, it was time for bed.
Until experienced, one cannot imagine the rest achieved after a long day of paddling, with the peaceful sound of rushing water heard throughout the night. Ah, the way life should be.
Mornings on the waterway began at daybreak, with the continued sound of rushing water, birds chirping, bright sunlight reflecting off the tents and fresh, crisp air. As one glances at the outstanding views of nature an overwhelming peace is experienced, realizing there likely isn’t another person around for miles, many, many miles. This, along with the complete absence of mobile phone notifications vying for attention.
After tending to nature’s call, the first duty was to get water from the river, boiling for coffee, on the coleman stove. In parallel, a fire was stoked for warmth and to keep flies away.
The crew knew to get up at first light, the sound of the whistling kettle or else receive a less peaceful greeting, in the form of a jostle from the guide, ensuring the entire group was involved in maintaining forward progress on the journey.
Once coffee was ready, a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes was prepared and promptly consumed by the crew.
Final duties before departing were then performed, including washing dishes, breaking down camp, dousing the fire, loading the canoes and ensuring the group “left no trace.” The approach the guide learned as a young lad, from his father, was to walk the campsite and pick up anything larger than a cigarette butt.
The group then began their second day on the waterway, with sights on the next campsite, Cunliffe Depot, approximately 25 miles away. The map indicated this leg of the trip would be more exciting, with several spans of class II rapids.
The map didn’t fail the group. A mishap occurred as the guide’s canoe became thoroughly hung up on a rock, which was just below the surface. At this point, all one thinks about is “we don’t want to capsize as our gear will be strewn all about the waterway!”
To dislodge the canoe the guide jumped into the frigid water, reducing weight in the stern (back) of the canoe, hanging on all the while. After precariously drifting downstream in the deep, rushing water, the guide was able to coax the canoe to shore. The entire crew was laughing at the spectacle. As full disclosure, this was a near repeat of an experience had on the very same rock, six years earlier.
Later, a moose was observed feeding in the waterway. Pausing to take pictures, some in the group were able to get close, prompting the guide to remind them that moose will charge! After a few minutes the moose became disinterested and trotted gracefully off into the wilderness.
Other wildlife, serving as constant companions during the day’s journey, included pairs of mergansers. These are waterfowl in the duck family, distinguished from their brethren by the mohawks they sport and their behavior: constantly diving (like loons) searching for fish.
After several hours of travel, the targeted campsite was spotted, from several hundred yards away. To the groups slight dismay, it was occupied. Upon glimpsing at the map the weary group agreed on another site, which was fortunately, just across the river.
The chosen site proved to be more than adequate, although the flies were a bit fierce. Out came the headnets, minus the guide, who refused to wear one for the duration, representing native Mainers, who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing such a thing.
After another great night of camping the group prepared for the shortest leg of the trip, to the climax, Allagash Falls, only 6 miles away. This served as a well-deserved respite after the prior day’s lengthy journey.
On approaching Allagash Falls one experiences a bit of anxiety, resulting from the thunderous sound of the forty foot falls and the fact that you don’t want to miss the take-out for fear of certain death.
While the day’s journey by canoe was the shortest of all, the portage was the longest: about a third of a mile.
Upon setting up the campsite it was bathtime. This consisted of each member of the group jumping into the raging river, just below Allagash Falls, with life vest on. Each had their own style of entering the rushing water, the guide doing his ritualistic back flip, others front-flipping or diving.
After cleaning up, the group napped on large slate rocks along the river, warmed by the mid-day’s sun.
Shortly thereafter, fishing commenced. Evan landed a 24-inch musky, which was had for dinner, with beans and hot dogs.
The final leg of the journey was to Allagash Village, about 13 miles away. Several spans of rapids along with many picturesque views made for another rewarding day.
On approaching Allagash Village it became important to not overshoot the take-out point, or the group would end up on the St. John River, not part of the plan.
Finally, White Birch Landing, a privately owned access-point near the end of the Allagash River, was in view. Once landed, a short walk to the owner’s home was necessary, to pay a small landing fee and use their phone to call for transport services.
Within 30 minutes L’Italien showed up to load the gear and adventurers, dog-tired yet completely fulfilled at the completion of their journey, into his van for the short ride back to Pelletier’s Campground.
The evening’s dinner of pizza was enjoyed at the Forget Me Not Diner, a quaint establishment whose primary cook and server was a sweet little old lady. As the only diner in town, locals, most of whom admittedly never paddled the Allagash, frequently stopped by the table to ask about the waterway experience, being the primary reason strangers frequent the area.
After a good night’s sleep the group acknowledged that the last leg, of an absolutely outstanding adventure, was at hand: the drive home. The group may have stopped at the Woodsman’s Museum, in Patton, but were pressed for time as Aaron’s girlfriend had tickets to a concert in Boston that night. Back to reality…
Craig Bailey is a Registered Maine Guide and owner of Maine Adventures, LLC. To learn more visit: www.MaineAdventuresLLC.com.